Things Are Looking Up for Destroyed Church Hall

Prominent attorney holds insurers’ feet to fire

    Eighteen months after a fire destroyed Scoville Hall, the building used by the Amagansett Presbyterian Church for social events, meetings, and fund-raisers, its charred husk still stands. Demolition is imminent, however, thanks to the intervention of a celebrated attorney who happens to have a house on the same leafy, quiet street, Meeting House Lane.
    Since the involvement, beginning three months ago, of Barry Slotnick, who has represented high-profile clients including Bernard Goetz, Anthony Quinn, Joseph Colombo, and the former congressman Mario Biaggi, a protracted disagreement between Peerless Insurance and its client, the church, is moving toward resolution.
    The building, dedicated as the church’s Parish House in 1925, was named in 1973 for the Rev. Clarence Beecher Scoville, who led the congregation from 1919 to 1943. In the early hours of Oct. 15, 2011, the Amagansett Fire Department was notified that Scoville Hall was burning. More than 100 firefighters from five districts spent the next three hours fighting the blaze.
    The building had been an essential resource for many in the community, serving as a home for the Amagansett food pantry and a meeting place for recovering alcoholics, among other groups. Its continued existence, 18 months after the fire, has annoyed some residents of the block. “You have people on our street all wondering about it,” said John Jaxheimer, who lives there. “Half the town drives by Scoville Hall wondering, ‘How this can be going on?’ ”
    “We are every bit as frustrated,” said the minister of the church, the Rev. Steve Howarth. Mr. Howarth told The Star last August that church officials deemed the settlement offered by Peerless Insurance very low, but that he hoped an agreement would be reached within a month or two.
    “Accepting a less than equitable settlement doesn’t feel right,” Mr. Howarth said on Monday. “Honestly, it doesn’t feel right to the community. We don’t want to leave a lot of money in the insurance company’s pocket, and we don’t want to put up a modular piece that doesn’t fit the nature of the community. We want this to last a few centuries.”
    A sticking point in the dispute concerns the building’s foundation, the insurer contending that it should remain and a new structure be built upon it, said Britton Bistrian, a member of the church whose firm, Land Use Solutions, provides services including design and site planning, construction management, and the securing of permits and variances.
    “The foundation was constructed in the early 1900s and should not be built upon,” Ms. Bistrian wrote in an e-mail. “Due to the era of the building construction, it is likely there is very little, if any, structural support, from steel reinforcement to proper footings. It is my opinion that the new building should be constructed on a new foundation meeting all present-day construction codes and standards of good building practice.”
    The insurer, said Mr. Howarth, “is in effect saying we can patch the building from the first floor up. My sense is simply that the loss was much more extensive from both fire and water and, now, continuing weather damage, and that in order to rebuild a structure in keeping with today’s construction methods and code requirements, we believe that it’s going to be necessary to start anew.”
    Enter Mr. Slotnick, of the firm Buchanan Ingersoll and Rooney. “I was very offended by the fact that I saw this burned-out building sitting on Meeting House Lane without anyone doing anything,” he told The Star last Thursday. “I took one look and said this is the folly of the insurance company — they’re going to keep everyone strung out.”
    Mr. Slotnick offered his assistance to Mr. Howarth, who accepted. “We got in touch with the insurance company,” the lawyer said. “We told them unless and until there’s a resolution, we would do a $100 million lawsuit. They realized we were not kidding. We’ve done this before.”
    In 2007, Mr. Slotnick sued the insurer Lloyd’s of London on behalf of Steve Wynn, the casino mogul, regarding a Picasso painting, “Le Rêve,” which Mr. Wynn owned and had accidentally punctured. The damage happened just one day after he’d agreed to sell the painting for $139 million; the sale was canceled in light of the accident. Mr. Wynn claimed Lloyd’s owed him $54 million for the loss in the painting’s value resulting from the damage. Mr. Slotnick asserted on his client’s behalf that the insurer has dragged its feet, withholding appraisers’ reports on the painting. The case was reportedly settled to Mr. Wynn’s satisfaction.
    The dispute over Scoville Hall’s foundation “will probably be resolved in our favor,” Mr. Slotnick said. “We have the ability to bring in experts who will be able to give us appropriate reports, and the insurance company, I think in exchange for not being sued, will go along with what we have to say.”
    Mr. Slotnick’s firm referred church officials to Young Adjustment Company, a public adjustor that represents the insured. “Barry’s firm was extremely helpful for arranging Young to help us at a rate that made it possible for us to hire them,” Mr. Howarth said, adding that based on recent discussions, demolition is expected to commence within two weeks.
    “I have a demolition estimate on my desk,” Ed Williamson of Young Adjustment Company said yesterday. “Once we do the demolition, we are going to be able to then examine what I will refer to as the basement walls to see if they’re damaged, and proceed accordingly.”
    Neither Mr. Howarth nor Mr. Slotnick would divulge a settlement figure offered by the insurer, nor the discrepancy between it and what the church sought. But Peerless Insurance, Ms. Bistrian wrote, is “completely unreasonable with the cost of the rebuild, giving us pennies on the dollar.”
    “We don’t believe they’ve come up with the right price,” Mr. Williamson said of Peerless. “When they started out with an offer, they brought in an individual that was probably not capable of doing the job.”
    “The original contractor that the insurance company utilized to give them estimates is now gone,” Mr. Slotnick said.
    Mr. Howarth did not offer an estimate of the cost of reconstruction. “But it’s substantial, and far more than our church could raise with fund-raising dinners,” he said.
    Mr. Williamson said an initial figure of $800,000 to cover demolition and reconstruction has been increased to $1.2 million. “That’s a quantum leap,” he said. “I don’t necessarily believe it can be done for one-point-two — I guarantee it won’t be, because I can see already that the demolition was 15 to 18 percent short — but we’re moving along.”
    Asked for comment, Jonathan Lawlee, the claims adjustor handling the case for Peerless Insurance, referred The Star to the insurer’s public relations department. Christopher Goetcheus of that department e-mailed yesterday to say that the company does not comment on open claims.
    “At this juncture, they’re apologetic for their misdeeds,” Mr. Slotnick said.